Bruce Arena: “Am I different than I was in my early years? For sure. No question about it.” (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Arena futbol, as we know it, has been kicking around for more than five decades.
Of course, we’re talking about the Bruce Arena kind.
Too small to play American gridiron football at Carey High School in Franklin Square, N.Y. in the late sixties, Arena turned to and excelled another kind, the world’s game. First, he was an All-American goalkeeper at Cornell University and then the most successful head coach in American men’s soccer history.
In case you weren’t counting, Arena’s teams at the University of Virginia won five NCAA Division I championships and his Major League Soccer sides have captured the MLS Cup five times – twice with D.C. United and three times with the LA Galaxy. Oh, and that doesn’t include twice guiding the U.S. men’s national team in the World Cup, reaching the 2002 quarterfinals.
These days, the septuagenarian – Arena turned 70 on Sept. 21 – is striving for his sixth MLS title as his New England Revolution, which has never won any, prepares to host New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinal at Gillette Stadium Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
He is the oldest coach in the league, but his wisdom is indisputable. He is confident in his skin and in his decisions, but not arrogant as he might have been years ago.
“Am I different than I was in my early years? For sure. No question about it,” he said during Monday conference call with the media. “We learned something what we do every day in this profession. I think the game has changed. The atmosphere around teams has changed. There’s a lot of issues inside and out outside of teams you have to appreciate in this day and age.
“Maybe 30 years ago, I knew everything. Today I realized what I don’t. So that’s a that’s a big change for sure. But I have changed. I think I’m a little bit more patient than I was in the past. But I’ve enjoyed coaching every bit of the way. So, it’s been a great experience for me.”
Arena has been superb with man management through the years. That includes his players and assistant coaches.
Let’s face it, behind any successful head coach are his or her assistants, who might not get the recognition but play vital roles in a team’s success.
For years, Dave Sarachan was Arena’s able lieutenant on the USMNT and Galaxy.
With the Revs, Arena put together another formidable roster of assistant coaches.
Named MLS coach of the year for the fourth time Monday, Arena lauded his co-workers.
“Well, we all have different responsibilities, and they fulfill those responsibilities in a great way,” he said. “Kevin Hitchcock deals with our goalkeepers, helps us with re-starts as well. Richie [Williams] helps us with the postgame editing of our games. Dave van den Bergh does the scouting of the opponents. Shalrie Joseph helps us in training every day.
“We just merged together and complement each other. They’ve done an outstanding job.”
Some of those assistant coaches, incidentally, have a New York-New Jersey connection. Richie Williams was a key player with the two-time national youth champion Union Lancers (Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League) and played for Arena at Virginia and D.C. United before he turned to coaching. He has been an assistant with several teams, including the Red Bulls, where he twice was an interim coach. Van den Bergh played an important part of the Red Bulls’ Cinderella run to the 2008 MLS Cup. And Joseph, a former Brooklyn, N.Y. resident, was a star at St. John’s University.
Incredible as it may sound, two legendary football coaching greats whose teams call Gillette Stadium home have yet to meet, even though they share the same venue.
That would be Bill Belichick, the coach of the primary tenant (New England Patriots) and Arena.
“I’ve actually never met him,” Arena said. “We don’t have a relationship, but I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s obviously the arguably the finest football coach in the history of the NFL. It’s amazing to watch his team; even last year and a year where they weren’t at their best to see the coaching. This year has been absolutely spectacular. It’s awesome. It’s an honor being in the same building with him at times.”
Later Arena added: “I’ll meet Bill I’m sure at some point. I think he’s pretty occupied in his job as I am in mine.”
Arena himself is focused on adding another trophy and honor to his seemingly endless list of accolades.
If he and the Revs can accomplish that, it would cap off an incredible, legendary career, although he has shown few signs of slowing down.